Review: Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein

This was one of Heinlein’s juvenile books from the 1950s. It’s the tale of a young slave, Thorby, rise from the very bottom of society – a beggar’s slave – to the pinnacle of corporate wealth and power. I confess my motivation for reading this was that someone compared a bit of my own work to it, so I thought I would go check it out. I hadn’t read any Heinlein in perhaps 20 years, so I figured it was time to look again.

It was okay. Mostly, it simply didn’t age well. Maybe it was that it had been written as juvenile, which back in the 1950s was aimed quite a bit lower than today’s Young Adult fiction, or maybe it was merely that SF and narrative styles have changed a lot in 60 years. There were a number of sociological ideas that were belabored in a “Hey, look at my cool idea” way. That was fairly common in the early love affair between science fiction and libertarianism, but it’s kind of dated now. Also, the narrative style was a somewhat clutzy omniscient POV, which has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. As such, it robbed the story of the kind of punch-in-the-gut immediacy that I’ve come to enjoy in current fiction.

Nonetheless, it painted a broad canvas for humanity, and took our young Thorby through quite a bit of it. It did, however, end on something of a cliffhanger. Sure, things are more or less resolved, but there’s this big, fat challenge sitting out in front of our hero, and then the tale ends. As far as I know, he did not write a sequel, so it’s just left hanging.

So, I think that for its intended audience of kids in the 1950s, it was spot-on. Today, less so.

Review: Saving Mars, by Cidney Swanson

Saving Mars is the first book in a trilogy (or series) of books about a teenage pilot from Mars and her brother. I was mostly checking this out for my daughter, because she is nuts about Mars, and the brother in question is a reasonably high-functioning autistic. Likewise, my daughter’s brothers are autistic. On that point, I will probably recommend it to her around age thirteen or fourteen. (She’s nine now.)

However, it didn’t work that well for me as an adult. I have certainly enjoyed some YA fiction, but this one only did so-so. Too many details were glossed over for my taste, and I found a number of decisions (made by both youngsters and adults) to be poorly thought out. While I can say that’s something to be expected amongst the adolescent, some of these pushed my willing suspension of disbelief, especially the ones made by the adults. This probably would not have bothered me had I read it as a young adult myself, but looking at it with adult eyes it bothered me.

I will probably continue to read the series – after all it’s high-adventure and solar-system politics – but I really do hope the characters get smarter in the later books.

Review: Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman

I picked this one at random from a pile of samples and was totally sucked in. It’s a first person narrative of an eighteen year old girl who emigrates to Mars with her family in one of the first waves of colonists/explorers and then actually finds martians… sort of.

The science is pretty good, even for the martians (hence the “sort of”), and it was a lot of that minutiae that drew me in. No, it’s not page after page of technical exposition. Rather, it shows a lot of the “boring” day to day business of riding a space elevator up to an interplanetary ship, making the trip across the void, landing, and living in the harsh conditions of another planet. I suppose I liked it for many of the same reasons I enjoyed the daily details of Nathan Lowell’s Solar Clipper series, i.e. it made the fantastic life of space travel feel real without making it mundane. By the time we got to the “martians”, I was completely drawn into her personal world.

This book also comes close to one of my favorite kinds of conflict, where the bad guy isn’t really a bad guy, just that he is making decisions from his own values, and those decisions and actions end up conflicting with our hero’s goals. There are two bad guys in this. The first is a local administrator who is doing her best to protect the Mars outpost and humanity at large and who makes some bad calls in the process. The second is a distant group that is acting to protect itself at any cost with no apologies to those who get in the way.

In the end, heroes are heroic, bad guys are thwarted, and sacrifices are noble. It finishes with a semi-open happy ending, and I believe there are at least two sequels, so I may be looking at those soon.

Review: Texas Gothic, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

This is a standalone ghost hunting story by the author who also did the Maggie Quinn series…

A pair of disclaimers: I’m not really the target audience of this book (since I’m not a YA girl). Perhaps countering that, though, I have something of a fan-boy crush on the author since I think she’s a fabulous panelist. If you ever get to see her at a convention, give her a listen.

I liked the book fairly well, but… since comparisons to her other work are inevitable… I didn’t like it as much as I liked her Maggie Quinn books. For some reason, I did not find this book’s Amy Goodnight to be as engaging as Maggie Quinn, and a lot of that boiled down to the narrative voice. I’ll at least grant her this much, considering that both books were written first person from the POV of an 18-19 year old girl, their narrative styles were noticeably different. I guess I just liked Maggie’s voice better.

The other thing that set me against the book from the start was the subject matter. It’s a ghost story. While Maggie is off fighting demons and closing off interdimensional portals, this story is about a ghost haunting a Texas ranch. It was well done, and the ghostly interactions were not overdone, but real life “ghost hunters” annoy the shit out of me. No offense to you personally if you’re one of them, but I have a hard time not crying bullshit on them. As such, I was not primed to enjoy a ghost story.

Now, having said that, it was well done and believable, not so much because the character believed, but because the character did not want to believe. She acknowledged that yes, it could very well be a true ghost out there causing problems, but she did not want that to be true. That was enough to quiet my inner skeptic enough to go along for the ride.

And it was a fun ride. There were heroes and villains, lust and greed, real danger, and real consequences. It was not just a scary weekend listening to stairs creak. It was a little adventure that actually got to the bottom of things.

So, I can actually recommend it to others, but given my pre-existing annoyance with things ghost-related, I probably would not have recommended it to myself.

Review: Hell Week, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

This is the sequel to an earlier reviewed book Prom Dates from Hell:

I’ll put out the same caveats I did on the first one:

  • I’ve got a bit of a fan-boy crush on the author (because she’s just such a cool panelist at conventions), and…
  • I’m not really the target audience for this book.

Having said that, I had a blast with this book, even more fun than I did with the first one. Maggie is back and starting to take her psychic powers a bit more seriously, and these sorority girls aren’t the vapid bowheads I remember from my college years. Some of the supporting characters make their return, including a reformed villain from the first book.

I can’t say a whole lot more without getting into spoiler territory, but it was a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to the third book, Highway to Hell, but my wife recommended I take a look at her Texas Gothic first.

Review: The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

I recently finished this one, the second book “His Dark Materials” trilogy:

It was okay, but I must say it was a bit of a grind, and I lay much of the blame on the writing style. It may simply be since this is ostensibly a children’s book, it’s supposed to written this way, but it left a foul taste in my mouth. Far too much is spelled out rather than merely implied. In writer-speak, it has way too much tell and not enough show.

The other aspect of the writing that bugged me was the point-of-view. It seemed to be a meld of third-person omniscient and third-person limited, meaning that sometimes we knew everything about everyone, while sometimes we only knew about things from one person’s point of view. The way he switched back and forth between those two forms (as well as blithely switching which character’s POV we were in) bugged the shit out of me. However, I’ll confess that some of this might be because I was also doing a copy-edit pass on some of my own work, and I was on the lookout for point-of-view errors, and if Pullman had chosen the point-of-view limitation I work with, then this book would been a virtual abattoir of red-pen corrections.

So, getting past my issues with the writing itself, how was the book? Well, the plot advanced, we met new people as well as saw old foes, and we learned more about the mysterious “Dust”. On that stuff, the payoff was decent, but it also suffers the problem of the middle book in a trilogy. The first book hooked us, and now we’re filling in the extra details we need as we build towards the climactic third book, and unfortunately, much of that filling-in is a little boring.

I’ll probably finish out the trilogy later this year, but I’m in no rush. Supposedly, the final resolution of all the mysteries is some controversial statement about the Judeo-Christian concept of Original Sin, and I’m curious about what he has to say. And yet, after grinding through this one, I’m tempted to reach for the Cliff Notes on book 3.

But NO SPOILERS in the comments, okay?

Review: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

I caved to mob pressure and finally took a look at this one now, rather than wait for the movie to ruin it:

I confess I went in with low expectations. I’d seen lots of people raving about it but with very little detail. About all I knew was “teenage gladiatorial combat”, and that didn’t really thrill me. I thought perhaps this was some odd dystopian tale of the perfect society that every now and then tossed some of its children into the meat grinder for fun, perhaps a bit like The Lottery but more cruel.

Well, yes and no. I’ll put in a mini-spoiler here that is revealed quite early in the book, and that’s the fact that this is far from a perfect society, and the tossing of kids into the ring is an intentional act of cruelty by an oppressing victor over its vanquished foes. Once that became clear, these games took on an entirely different feel to me.

And then… Wow!

The protagonist is imperfect but very likeable, responsible but frail, and angry while still compassionate. Yeah, lots of contradictions wrapped up in one amazing character. I found her very compelling.

And the story kept me guessing. One of the drawbacks to writing stories is that you get a good understanding of how stories work, how they flow, the build and release of tension and all that literary crap. It also means that I don’t get surprised all that often anymore. And while our protagonist’s dilemma is presented fairly early, my guess of the resolution kept changing the further I got in. Oh, betrayal! No, it’s going to be sacrificial! No, wait, it’s something else! Where is Spartacus??

So, I say definitely check it out. It’s got action, tragedy, ingenuity, more tragedy, and some bittersweet victory. The real villains, of course, are those who run the games, and with two books to go in the Hunger Games trilogy, I have some hope that those villains will get fitted for a nice spit.

Review: Prom Dates from Hell, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

I recently finished this one, a fun little story about a high school journalist who crosses paths with jocks, cheerleaders, and demons.

Prom Dates from Hell, by Rosemary Clement-Moore

First, a couple of confessions about me and this book:

Confession #1: I am very much not the target audience for this book. It’s young adult with a female protagonist. I am neither young nor female.

Confession #2: I have a bit of a fan-boy crush on the author. I have met her at various conventions, and she’s a great panelist: quick on her feet and very clever.

As for the book, I had a lot of fun with it. It’s written first person, and the protagonist has much of the same witty snark as the author has demonstrated, and while the supernatural aspects are clearly not autobiographical, some of the high school drama rings so true as to have come from real life. While I was not a yearbook geek in high school, I was a band geek, and all the insane jock and cheerleader drama brings back a lot of memories. It’s not that they’re necessarily memories I’d rather forget, but they remind me how much better life gets once you’re out of high school.

(As an aside on that, I think it was Wil Wheaton who once told a bunch of high school geeks that once high school was over, they would never have to deal with any of their classmates ever again if they didn’t want to. Wise words.)

I don’t want to say too much about the story, but as the much-dreaded prom approaches, things start getting spookier and spookier. Someone has revenge on their mind, and they’ve got a surprisingly cruel way to get it. Only Maggie Quinn has a chance to stop it.

So check it out. I’ve already slipped it into my wife’s in-pile, and I’m considering the sequel, “Hell Week”.

How Much Adult in Young Adult?

I’m thinking about my next novel, and the protagonist is likely going to be on the cusp of adulthood, likely 17 going on 18 but possibly as young as 15 going on 16. In most ways, it’s a coming of age story as he transitions from youth into adulthood, but I’m thinking about his age in terms of what kind of book it is. That is, is a book about a young adult necessarily young adult (YA) fiction, and if it is, what does that mean about what themes are off-limits?

I haven’t read much YA fiction lately, but I hear it’s gotten fairly dark. At the very least, I hear it’s not the whitewashed Leave it to Beaver days of Narnia. Probably the most modern YA I’ve read is the Harry Potter series, and from what I’ve heard about other YA series, even the final two or three Potter books were tame by comparison. There was no YA sex, no YA drug use, and apart from some heart-breaking bits in the climax, precious little YA violence. But I hear that a lot of YA fiction these days is all about getting high, getting laid, and getting killed or at the very least beaten.

So I have a very poor feeling on just what the current trend is. I have some YA in my in-pile, and I’m getting to it, but it’s going to take a good dozen books before I have a decent feel for it first hand. I know very well the importance of reading the market, but to some extent I actually have done that. I think of this primarily as a space opera, and I’ve read those for decades. It’s just that my protagonist is going to be in that age range and will be dealing with the bumps and bruises that come at that age as well as a heaping of adult-sized problems. So I’m not sure if it’s space opera or young adult or both.

What makes me question its YA credentials even more is that if it works out, I think I’d like to turn it into a trilogy or a series, and he won’t be 17 forever. I’ve always heard that YA protagonists should be about one to two years older than the target reader. This type of story would age him six months to a year per book, so by book 3 or 4, he’ll be well out of his teens. What’s the upper limit on YA age protagonists? Or does it even work that way?

Anyway, the story is rapidly shaping up in my head as fairly dark, and I’m likely to write it the way I see it regardless of whether or not it’s properly YA or not. I’m just trying to figure out what niche it might fit when it’s done.

Any YA readers or writers out there want to share their experience?